Ever ambitious, Willem de Kooning once declared to his photographer friend Rudy Burckhardt that he wanted to paint “like Ingres and Soutine—both at the same time.” Ingres, no doubt, for the rigor and refinement of his portraits of noble patrons, and Soutine for the expressionistic abandon he brought to everything from scenes of everyday working people to dense, windswept landscapes of the South of France. Even if Soutine did not return the reference—he and de Kooning never met—the latter’s repeated acclaim served as sufficient premise for the academically enlightening exhibition “Chaïm Soutine/Willem de Kooning, La Peinture Incarnée (Paint Made Flesh)” at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris this winter.
Conceived as a posthumous dialogue between two iconic painters of the schools of Paris and New York, respectively, the show also traced the relationship between two partner institutions, the Orangerie and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where the exhibition originated this past spring. It was on the prescient advice of French art dealer Paul Guillaume, whose collection formed the basis of the permanent inventory of the Orangerie, that Dr. Albert C. Barnes returned from a trip to Paris with a trove of pieces by a little-known Russian painter named Soutine whom he would exhibit in 1923. Soutine, whose gestural intensity was seen to herald the very Abstract Expressionist movement so many American painters embraced, made such a splash that the Museum of Modern Art, under legendary director Alfred Barr, devoted a retrospective to him in 1950.
At MoMA, and subsequently on a private visit to the Barnes in 1952, de Kooning discovered his painterly soulmate in Soutine. He experienced the sort of epiphany that would forever influence, if not altogether redirect, his oeuvre, deepening his commitment to expressionism, as evidenced in his portion of the nearly fifty tableaux—and one extraordinary sculpture—curators selected for the exhibition. Early examples of frankly cubistic figures, such as the wide-eyed Woman (1944) in hues of rust and ochre and Queen of Hearts (1943–46) in more vibrant tones, led up to de Kooning’s Soutine-inspired—and credited—breakthrough. “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” de Kooning famously pronounced at a lecture in New York in 1950 as he was embarking on his second “Woman” series. The Barnes visit helped him finish key works, newly informed by Soutine’s expressive glory in depicting even the most pedestrian subjects.
For pedagogical purposes, the initial galleries of the Orangerie displayed some of the very Soutines that de Kooning was supposedly knocked out by. Their inimitable melancholy and impasto layers of vivid color have withstood the test of time. Here is Le Chasseur (1925), in which a bellboy in bright-red uniform and matching cap strikes a defiant pose, despite his lowly position at the behest of a Parisian bourgeoisie newly enamored of its economic status. He joins the young working-class men of Enfant de Choeur (1927–28) and Le Petit Pâtissier (1922–23), who, with their pallor and pronounced ears, easily double as the painter himself, as depicted in Autoportrait (c. 1918) with smock and easel. Soutine had by then left his native Minsk—now Belarus—and was working in the Montparnasse district of Paris among a group of fellow immigrant artists whose collective was known as La Ruche (the Beehive). No doubt encouraged by his peers and sponsors, Soutine sought subjects that accommodated a further leaning toward abstraction, culminating in his almost lurid renditions of raw butcher’s meat, such as Le Boeuf Écorché and Le Poulet Plumé, both from 1925.
De Kooning’s expressionistic evolution in response to such works is further evident in a hulking bronze sculpture from 1972, Clam Digger, a rare sculptural example of this motif in his work. Working in clay and then metal may have forced de Kooning to lend a figurative shape to his subject, as this gnarly, chiseled figure seems to have risen from the very mud he forays for edible specimens. This work echoes those all but abstract female effigies from a decade earlier (including Woman, Sag Harbor, 1964, executed in the raw, oily flesh tones Soutine favored, which was also on view). A few degrees’ difference, a little less detail, and it could be a piece of butcher’s meat.
Indeed, de Kooning’s homage to Soutine is apparent in the stylistic commonality between the above oeuvres by the maturing Dutch master and Soutine’s landscapes and villagescapes in which these subjects blur into the elements of wind and weather (Paysage, 1922–24, or La Colline à Céret, 1921). The two artists, separated by roughly half a century, would seem to be working as one.
Underscoring the artists’ parallel trajectories, the exhibition’s final gallery revealed a selection of masterpieces from de Kooning’s “Woman” series that Soutine surreptitiously gave the Dutch-born artist license to pursue. Among these is Woman in Landscape III (1968), where a female figure is all but disassembled into a controlled chaos of flesh and pastel color, driven by wide, assertive brushstrokes. The striking work recalls, barely, his Woman II from more than a decade earlier (1952), where the delineated face and figure persist—albeit are soon to disappear.